The Liberator‘s tag line asks the audience: What kind of man would defy an empire? The answer, with charismatic Édgar Ramírez (Carlos, Zero Dark Thirty) as South American hero Simón Bolívar, is elusive yet intriguing. Bolívar fought Spain over and over in South America and it’s true that, in military campaigns that covered twice the territory of Alexander the Great, his army never conquered; it liberated. But this epic foreign war movie (in Spanish with English subtitles, opening in selected theaters on Friday) covers too much ground to dramatize the essence of this extraordinary man.
The subject is no less worthy of understanding. Bolívar’s family came from Spain’s Basque and Canary Islands regions, he was an aristocrat born in Caracas, Venezuela to a family fortune on vast property powered by slave labor, yet he was both raised by a black woman who loved him and he was intellectually liberated by a maestro who taught Bolívar radical, freethinking ideals. Cast out by the Spanish state and sent into the country with nothing, he nevertheless triumphed, connecting with natives, remaking himself and, stitching mutual interests into a cause based on French and American revolutionary ideas, instilling South American peoples with fervor for independence. Bolívar’s has the potential to be an amazing story and, in The Liberator, directed by Alberto Arvelo with a screenplay by Timothy J. Sexton, it is only partially depicted and often too quickly, too densely or aimlessly and with practically no exposition. Even the most studied Bolívar scholars may be bewildered by this sprawling motion picture.
That what is on screen – a widower who was passionate about “the rights of the individual” – has been largely untold is surprising. Hollywood should be all over this type of riches to rags story, though Bolívar, who is claimed by dictators such as Venezuela’s Chavez, admired Jefferson, eventually opposed slavery and does not fit the archetype of the leftist Latin American usually favored by studio executives. At least The Liberator, which uses too many characters to try too hard to do too much, makes the audience want to know more about this larger than life hero. There are good lines, such as when his mentor admonishes Bolívar during a low point in Paris, telling his once-promising student turned playboy: “You used to be rich [and] now all you have is money.”
There are also good scenes, such as when Irish troops consider whether to join the cause and on the cusp of a climactic river battle in which Bolívar persuades army troops by using reason and self-interest to face superior Spanish troops. The movie spreads itself too thin and it feels like Arvelo left a lot of scenes out, leaving gaps that render Ramírez’s performance disjointed when the whole picture needs to come into view. To its definite credit, The Liberator attempts to tell a story that ought to be told.
The picture also features Maria Valverde as Maria Teresa del Toro, Danny Huston as Martin Torkington, Imanol Arias as Monteverde, Gary Lewis as Colonel Rooke, Erich Wildpret as Antonio José de Sucre, Iwan Rheon as Lt. Daniel O’Leary and Andres Gertrudix as Prince Ferdinand.